"Sh*t self-righteous theatre bloggers say" ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 06, 2012

"Sh*t self-righteous theatre bloggers say"

Update: Jana Perkovic weighs in at Guerilla Semiotics. Well worth the read.

Update 2: The Guardian's Noises Off rounds up the brouhaha.

Update 3: And now Ben Eltham in Crikey.

Update 4: Ray Gill in the Age. Also, see the postscript below.

Update 5: Cameron Woodhead restores some balance in the Age.


The launch of an independent news organisation is a major event in Australia, where the fiercest debates about our media circle around the fact that we have the highest concentration of media ownership in the western world, with Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd owning 70 per cent of Australian newspaper circulation. And the interest in The Global Mail, which launched today, is surely intensified by the recent headlines about Gina Rinehart's aggressive bids for Fairfax, which raises the real fear that three major broadsheet newspapers - The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Financial Review - will be reduced to mouthpieces for the interests of the mining industry. The philanthropically funded Global Mail is an ambitious, nay, quixotic enterprise, and one we all wish well. Go read it, minions.

However, its first article on the arts - Now everyone is really a critic - caused a minor storm this morning among the theatregoers, bloggers, critics and journalists who hang around twitter. Stephen Crittenden, the arts, culture and religion correspondent, writes a feature tagged "Out, damned mainstream review! Bloggers are rising up to tell Sydney theatre lovers what they really think of the latest plays, with no punches pulled."

Well, one blogger, anyway: it's not really about theatre blogs in general, so much as a profile of Jane Simmons, head of drama at Sydney’s Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral School, who runs a provocative blog (hitherto unknown to me) called Shit On Your Play. Until now, it has been anonymous, notable for its title, its hating on Benedict Andrews, and Simmons's mission statement: "No more pandering to the wank of theatre without it being called exactly what it is." 

No one is arguing that Simmons doesn't have every right to think and blog whatever she likes about theatre, in Sydney or anywhere else. What's baffling is why this blog - with some extra comments from Kevin Jackson and a nameless former print critic - has been uncritically chosen to represent the theatre blogging culture in Australia, in the introductory arts feature on a high profile new media site.

If the feature is supposed to be about theatre blogs as a whole, it's a woeful misrepresentation: blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here. (For a thoughtful look at new media and theatre, check out Robert Reid's comments here, and then buy his Platform Paper, Hello World!, from Currency House). It seems like an enormous missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons, the challenges and problems, of current blogging and critical culture. Because it's not as if there aren't things to talk about or criticise.

Most depressingly of all, Simmons's profiling seems to be the occasion for a bit of arts-bashing in the finest traditions of Australian anti-intellectualism. For example, here's Simmons's take on all of German literature, as admiringly quoted by Crittenden: "German surrealist literature … well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective.Take that, Goethe! And Botho Strauss, you bad "surrealist"!

It's a puzzling opener for a magazine-style outlet that claims to offer "perspective and information outside the clamour". Rather, it's an all-too-familiar approach to arts reporting: controversy-led, polarising, reductive and blandly conservative.

Ah well. Let's hope for better.

A postscript: I've resisted pointing out that Shit on Your Play had, up to the publication of the Global Mail article, (after this flash of notoriety, who knows what will happen?), gained as many hits - or maybe pageloads - in its entire life as TN averages in a month, because saying so lays me open to the kind of attacks that claim I wrote this because my nose has been put out of joint. But put it this way: the West End Whingers began to attract wider notice in the press because they were so popular. If SOYP were a similar popular phenomenon, the attention paid would not be puzzling at all, and there would be a different sort of argument.

* Thanks to Laura Parker for the header.


Harley said...

yay for your antidote to this silly rot. my lazyblog (FB) rant:

it should be edited down to about half the current length. also, to capture the vibe of theatre blogging, try talking to a blogger who isn't a mumsy private school drama teacher who hates what "this new generation" (ie, late 30s) is doing in the mainstage MPAB funded companies because it's too experimental, too difficult, too wanky, not enough story, didn't move move me, what are they going on about (god forbid she ever goes near next wave, arts house, p space etc). if we're gonna talk blogs as the new criticism, let's talk to alison croggan or august supple or james waites as well as the reactionary "oh see here mr chekhov, this time you've gone too far!" voice. here endeth the lesson.

Richard Pettifer said...

Interesting that you would be so harsh on Jane. I see her as a symbol of an internet "hater" syndrome making its way into the theatre. Theatre being a local, personal (well, mostly personal) action, it seems unfair to be bringing the same vocabulary usually reserved for L.A celebrities into the dialogue. It would be curious, for example, to see her "shit on" a play that was extremly and notably such, like the Waiting for Godot performed at La Mama after the bushfires, having lost a cast member in the disaster.

I think she does represent a "I have no idea what the hell is going on, F*ck this, I'm never coming to the theatre again" sort of viewer. A voice could have the potential to bring people to theatre who wouldn't otherwise go... giving access to the dialogue, or to give them a release for their frustration. (Many might have found it a comfort in the case of Baal. I had alot of dreary convos about it). It's not a conventional approach, but I've found her comments occasionally insightful, although it seems she isn't really broadly interested in theatre - and wants to keep it that way. You might say that there's no excuse for this sort of naivity in a critic (of any kind), or you might say it allows her to occupy the perspective of the audience member who hasn't kept up with the last 5 years of contemporary theatre which, fair enough (I guess), is not for everyone. (Though the next question for this fictional viewer would be: why are you reading a theater blog? But anyway). This is really a devil's advocate for me as I believe part of the role of a critic is to give audience aspirational nuggets, some direction and clarity to their own artistic pursuit (made through "viewing"). And part of this is to form educated views, not ones that are knee-jerk, and I think a particular reviewer for The Age is guilty of the same mistake on occasion, especially when he really hates a big mainstream production. Though one cannot deny his interest or enthusiasm for theatre, which forgives alot.

Maybe I'm giving her too much credit.(I was also annoyed recently when I posted a really long comment that I thought about for ages on amateurism and she gave me a one line response. Why did I bother?? Anyway, sour grapes). One of the good things, about your own blog is the time you take replying, and you seriously try to form relationships with people through it. Dialogue creates better criticism, and better art? Not in every case, but surely broadly true.

A diatribe, however, pushes for a narrowing of perspecitves, and a propogandic art.

Though... maybe there's room for both? Maybe this stuff has a role to play? I know which side of the fence I'm on, but I feel like there is an opposing argument to be made here. I just seem unable to make it.

james wilkins said...

Oh dear. Crittenden and Simmons really have upset the Apple cart haven't they? It was a wonderfully cosy world. After a few years of the 'new' bloggers entering the fray, the industry finally accepts them and the self appointed arbiters of taste are legitimised. Then along comes this woman (cue anti teacher mumsy adjectives) who isn't impressed by the theatre much, nor what's been written about it and its a offence on the industry, bloggers and all. Throw in an article by a new website and its a 'missed opportunity" because the self appointed arbiters weren't asked for their approval. Very interesting for the howls of protest. Very interesting.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi all - thanks for your comments.

James, do you think Shit on Your Play is really worth such attention? As I said, I've no argument with the existence of the blog itself; there's space for all sorts of views. But I read a lot of it yesterday, and I was deeply puzzled. There are plenty of such views about already in the "mainstream", as the campaign against Kristy Edmunds, among many other things, demonstrated here a few years ago. And sneering at Benedict Andrews isn't exactly new. It's very difficult to see how she presents an alternative when she rehearses views which are already widely public. There is such a thing as smart, intelligent conservative writing, but this is not it.

Basically, given the stated mandate of the Global Mail, I was incredibly disappointed. More of the same that we get everywhere else. This kind of reactionary commentary is actually why many arts blogs started in the first place.

And are you really suggesting that blogs are the new "mainstream"? You could argue that (maybe), but that wasn't what the article was saying. Crittenden claims that Simmons is striking out against boring, dishonest "mainstream" commentary (without at any point telling us what that means, or speaking to any print critics, aside from the nameless "source"), and Simmons seemed especially to be striking out at print critics. It didn't mention blogs as her locus of reaction: it was the hackneyed idea of print vs internet, which was old some years back, and has never been especially true in Australia theatre blogging anyway. Maybe it's not so heroic to be reacting against blogs. Not so much of a "story".

Alison Croggon said...

As a PS: There is one offensive thing, as distinct from simply depressing: it's the suggestion that people who disagree with one's views are being "dishonest". Which is pretty much the presumption of the whole blog,

epistemysics said...

I never think that people who disagree with me are dishonest. I just think they're idiots.

(At least where 'taste' is concerned, anyway. I have much more sympathy with differing life/political views.)

But then we'll agree with each other on another play, and I'll think the person isn't so bad after all.

I rarely read her blog, and it's even rarer that I read her reviews. I find myself more interested in the comments, as I'm somewhat convinced that most of the anonymous ones are written by the same person (they do often sound like someone arguing with themselves).

Lyn Wallis said...

I was unaware of the blog until yesterday. No-one questions Ms Simmon’s right to express her views – but why the personal attacks? It’s painful to read, when you know that most professional theatre folk live on or below the poverty line, and when the average wage of some of our brightest and most ‘successful’ directors is about $40k per annum (Jacquie Bailey ‘Love Your Work’ 2008). It’s a bit rich (pardon the pun), to take such pleasure in skewering artists when you are earning a decent, stable head teacher’s wage, and don’t have to take any risks in the professional performance sphere, financial, artistic, or otherwise.

Unfortunately the blog isn’t brave – it could be, but let’s face it, anyone can stand on a soapbox and yell – when you have the courage to step down and engage in real debate at street level, a little bit quietly, using your ears as well as your mouth – that’s a whole lot braver. I do think she’s brave to be open about her identity. I found it interesting that most of her supportive blog respondents are ‘anonymous’. It concerns me too, that this is the first arts story for Global Mail, but really, it’s the oldest media trick in the book. It’s generated enormous commentary already, even I’ve bought in, and I rarely do. I think she’s been a bit done over by them actually, in their quest for a controversial arts opener. I don’t know how media savvy she is, but I wonder if she considered the real impact of exposure before turning the spotlight around. If she wasn’t previously on the radar with her broader personal and professional networks, I think she might be now.

Which brings me to my first thought when I read the blog. Ms Simmons is a teacher. She teaches drama. I’ve met some amazing teachers who take the task of helping their students to articulate responses to performances pretty seriously. Perhaps she cuts another figure in the classroom – but the blog sets the bar for intelligent critique and expression pretty low. I wonder what the students think of it all? Their parents? St Andrews Catholic College?

Alison Croggon said...

Yes. It's always a dilemma how to respond to things like this - is it better not to? (I obviously thought not, although it lays me open to accusations of being a "self-appointed arbiter" and whatnot). As I said on FB a moment ago, the Global Mail will be thinking it's doing its job, generating controversy and debate. It's a shame it's settled for linkbait rather than something genuinely illuminating, though.

Deadman said...

You write, “Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd own[s] 70 per cent of Australian newspapers.”

News Ltd owns 35% of Australian newspapers; they have a circulation of over 70%. Is that what you meant?

TimT said...

Yes I must admit, like Deadman, your first paragraph puzzled me too Alison.

Aside from the misleading stats about News Ltd, the argument about Rinehardt is odd too. Why is she any worse than the other Fairfax shareholders? Or, for that matter, the multi-millionaire Greens supporter who has decided to bankroll The Global Mail? It's almost as if, in order to support The Global Mail, it's necessary to exaggerate and mythologise the threats to media diversity in Australia.

Alison Croggon said...

Mea culpa. That's what happens when you go from memory and don't double check. Duly corrected. It's hardly misleading, though: aren't you worried about this issue? In London I can choose between a dozen mastheads. Here we've got two or at most three in any capital city. Do you think that's healthy? And 11 out of 12 papers in the capital cities are owned by Fairfax or Murdoch. It's a landscape that gets smaller and smaller.

Rinehardt might be the most enlightened, disinterested media boss evah, with a firm belief in the independence and autonomy of the press, even if said press publishes articles that run counter to her stated beliefs. It would be nice to think so. Do you think so? Do you think that's why she's buying up Fairfax?

As yet, she has only her track record at Channel 10 (Andrew Bolt's own show!) to indicate what she might be like. I guess we'll see.

TimT said...

Oh sure, media diversity is a problem in Australia. But I just can't see myself losing any sleep over Rinehart increasing her ownership of Fairfax shares. I'm not sure what sort of politics the rest of Fairfax subscribes to, but, what with all their shares, I'm pretty sure they're not going to be too fond of any form of classic left-wing redistribution. If anything I would have thought Rinehart increasing shares in Fairfax would be a good thing, a sign of confidence in the future of the company. (I checked and the spelling is Rinehart, contrary to the spelling we both used earlier!)

Alison Croggon said...

It's Murphy's Law of Blogging: everything you don't check (and I do check things) is bound to be wrong.

I totally see your point about Fairfax. But there is a subtext running about the Foxification of Australian news media, which, Murdoch notwithstanding, hasn't really happened here. Yet. It's the overwhelming dominance of such a trend in such a small culture that's alarming: how our news culture is less and less diverse. (A truly left wing mainstream newspaper would be a remarkable thing, godwot). Mind you, on the other side is the internet, and how I can now read newspapers I couldn't even get in the 80s. That is not a small thing.

As far as the mainstream press is concerned, I worry about the increasing marginalisation/demonisation of complexity, thoughtfulness, values of accuracy, evidence, disinterest etc. Fears about Rinehart are speculation at this stage, since although her views on climate change, free markets etc are well known, her ideas about running newspapers are remarkably hard to find.

Richard Pettifer said...

she's clearly looking for a mouthpiece to control debate, and Fairfax is in a vulnerable state right now. it makes sense. I am also scared of this, but it's a natural flow-on from too much power and influence from the mining sector.

Instead of buying Fairfax, she should open a blog called "I Shit on your Environment". An honest, cut-to-the-chase account of the mining sector. (kind of a joke, kind of not)

Kim said...

I read a couple of reviews on her blog. Reminded me a little of the West End Whingers but without the wit. And at least when the Whingers are panning a show you still get the sense that they actually love theatre.

Footlights, Frames and Fiction said...

It seems to me that Jane speaks like many a drama teacher in her sharp criticisms. Anyone who has been in an acting school or class has probably been told that what they're doing is shit at one point or another. I've read articles about awesome actors who came in for heavy criticism from their teachers at drama school, so it's no surprise that this particular drama teacher has a ready supply of caustic things to say, it's just that she's now giving the drama teacher treatment to everyone, not just her students. For me, a good critic has to start off being a fan of theatre, being moved by it and even in awe of what it can achieve, and from there develop a good eye for what's good, and what isn't, and be honest enough to point out faults. A critic should try to avoid losing a sense of wonder and excitement at the start of a play when the lights go down, I think. The thing I don't like about theatre criticism is when the critic sees so many plays, the whole experience doesn't feel special any more. That's something I hope to avoid in my reviews.

james wilkins said...

It may roll differently in oh-so-cultured Melbourne, but when you have a Sydney theatre critic walking around telling people its not his job to be critical of productions but to help support them, something is wrong.
Reviews here are all the same and terribly agreeable. I think Simmons is a sign of (conservative or not) people sick of the acquiescence. I wouldn't be blaming the messenger for this one.

Anonymous said...

"Reviews here are all the same and terribly agreeable."

I compared the Sydney Morning Herald Review to Simmons' review of Buried City. If tonally more polite, the SMH was just as damning. Maybe Sydney's more cultured than you think?

Anonymous said...

Maybe you just picked one review out of a thousand.

Alison Croggon said...

Part of the problem in the article is all those straw men - the "mainstream" reviews that do nothing but support the culture, the lack of honest criticism, etc. It would be nice if there were some actual evidence that this is the case. Who is this reviewer who supports and doesn't criticise? (Surely a contradiction in terms, as I've said myself on occasion). Is it just gossip, or is it an actual person? How about some examples? Or, perhaps, is that a misunderstanding of critical advocacy, which is a different beast altogether?

There's certainly no lack of the odd slashing review in the Melbourne press. Look to our friend Cameron Woodhead, who caused a minor flurry last year with a scathing review of a Theatreworks show. I don't know any critic here, print or pixels, who isn't frank in their views, and there have been some ferocious - and often interesting - disagreements between all of us.

Good point about the Whingers. The thing about the Whingers is that they are hilarious; they run a good line in self-depcrecating irony, and also know a thing or two about theatre.

Anonymous said...

"Part of the problem in the article is all those straw men - the "mainstream" reviews that do nothing but support the culture, the lack of honest criticism, etc."

It would be nice if there were some actual evidence that proved this wasn't the case.

Alison Croggon said...

How much evidence do you have to provide? I just provided an example: Cameron Woodhead. Another commenter provided another, in the SMH. Here's a particularly frank one of mine, that appeared in the Australian. I'm sure you could find hundreds more examples. If you bothered to look, that is.

Anonymous said...

Oh Alison, everyone hated Buried City. That's not an example. And you and Woody are in oh-so-cultural Melbourne so you don't count.

Alison Croggon said...

Er ... what? So this is just a Sydney conversation? Missed that bit. I thought the internet made the conversation national. (And what's this about "oh-so-cultural Melbourne"? Next time someone talks about snobby Melbourne, please remember that no Melburnian is actually saying this.)

But if we're talking Sydney, you have, off the top of my head, the trenchant John McCallum, Diana Simmonds and James Waites, just for starters. The last two are bloggers, but are experienced print critics as well. All, again, quite unafraid of disagreeing with anyone else. I'm sure others can come up with more. Which is to say, pretty much the same mixture of attitudes and approaches as anywhere else. What critics are you thinking of? I've named quite a few.

Peter Prattle said...

Aidez-moi! McCallum used to be trenchant but is as soft as butter on a summers day and Simmonds as predictable as a Williamson play.

Alison Croggon said...

This is me, AC, unable to log in on my Phone.

Be that as it may, PP, the accusation at hand is that undefined "mainstream" critics, or maybe only Sydney critics, (a) never write negative reviews and (b) agree with each other all the time. I see no evidence of this at all in my random reading, and nobody has shown me that it is actually the case. Beyond, of course, lots of unsubstantiated assertion. I'd also add, as a coda, that although criticism of course involves writing negative reviews, negativity is not the hallmark of good criticism.

Anonymous said...

You're being mischievous now Alison. No one said never. I believe the phrase above was 'terribly agreeable' and acquiescent.

Alison Croggon said...

I was talking about the original article. To be fair, on rereading it, it doesn't say straight out that they all agree: it just implies a consensus. More pertinently, even if it were true (of which I remain unconvinced) is Jane Simmons's blog really an illuminating alternative?

Check out Jana Perkovic's piece on this, Ah, but anyone can shit on a play, which teases all this out further.

Jasbo said...

I do find the ad hominem attacks on Jane more than just a little self-serving. Anyone who knows her would never describe her as 'mumsy', 'conservative', unable to deal with 'experimental' theatre, a 'hater', or as having 'no idea what is going on'.

Above all else she respects the audience. That doesn't mean she is in favour of dumbing down the theatrical experience, nor does it mean she is an 'arts basher' or 'anti-intellectual'.

Rather, it means she is willing to take on a smug, self-referential theatrical community when it puts its own academic norms ahead of real engagement with an audience.

Whether the approach is new or derivative is irrelevant to the cogency of the position.

Oh, and a critic 'forming educated views' is too often code for expressing the conventional wisdom of an insider clique (I'm looking at you 4 Coffins). And when you talk about propagandic art, there is nothing more propagandic than the constant regurgitation of semi-understood philosophic, political and production concepts by those lucky enough to have either a theatrical or critical forum.

And BTW, the passing paranoia about Gina R borders on the ridiculous.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm certainly not one for ad hominem attack. It's my major problem with Jane Simmons's blog. And she's definitely pushing some anti-intellectual arguments; viz, her take on German literature, as quoted above, or indeed, her adamant hostility to what she perceives to be German theatre culture as a whole. I could cite some other examples of her writing that suggest intellectual curiosity or interest are just a waste of time.

I'm puzzled by your statement that she "respects the audience". Which audience? Any audience is a mixed bag of all sorts of people, and I've no doubt her views represent a part of it. Like I said (and in fact have always said on this blog), there's room for all sorts of views. But what about those parts of an audience which disagree with Simmons? I can't see that she especially respects them, especially when she claims that they are dishonest in their responses to work she dislikes. And yet they are audience members too, who, like Simmons, buy their tickets and take a punt on a show.

I'm kind of amused by your thinking there are "academic norms" in the very diverse, extremely argumentative, highly critical bunch of theatre enthusiasts and ratbags who make up the bulk of regular bloggers and even professional critics. Some have academic credentials, some don't, there are varying levels of knowledge about theatre, and so on. (I don't have any academic credentials or affiliations; I make my living writing YA fantasy novels.) There are criticisms to be made about our critical culture, and many things that could be better. I suggest no one is more aware of that than the young bloggers who attempt the often thankless job of writing about theatre, for little or no reward, simply because they love it.

Richard Pettifer said...

Hmmm I reckon this is an interesting argument about respecting the audience. I don't know how she can speak for the audience, feels like a bit of a 'people's hero' thing to me. Kind of like an angry politician speaking for people who are discontented with politics. It's appropriation.

But I definitely know what you mean about smug self-referential theatre community. This kind of thinking is parochial and does not expand audiences, it turns people off coming to theatre and getting involved in the first place, which is a terrible thing. Theatre is beautiful.

So she's attacking this wank position... but then what? After you've taken it down, what do you replace it with? Unless you have ideas, unless you are 'developing' something as a critic, working for some sort of higher master, you aren't serving anything but your own interests. This is also what the haters do on the internet - 'trolling' as Jana points out.

Yeah I know what you mean 'educated views' is bad words I was struggling to find the right way. Sorry if it comes off as wank, to be honest I usually post on here to try to grapple with concepts I'm bad at because I have never had an education/training in theatre. However I object to the suggestion I or anyone else has built a critical forum out of luck. You make your own theatre forum if you choose to from the people around you or whatever, it isn't luck, you do it by engaging in critical conversation and by trying to engage other people. Not enough people do it which is why we don't have good theatre here, we just have 'shows', and anything innovative is mostly dismissed, unless it can find public money. For the record I usually feel like an idiot when i'm speaking about theatre, far from the 'insider'. But I am tryin to articulate stuff.

Having said all that I think Jane should keep doing what she's doing, I just don't think it's criticism, and it raises interesting questions about the difference between criticism and someone just sounding off. This distinction is not about whether or not they are bloggers or writing for mainstream press. People who write criticism feel rightly threatened by her being defined as a critic, because it encroaches on their own roles as critics. For example, Alison might feel damn snooty that some other internet blogger has got that exposure when she's been writing reviews on the internet since 2003 or whenever, and you have to say that to an extent, that's justified. Where are the mainstream media articles written about Alison's blog?


But that would be propaganda.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah, an endless comment thread to charm my insomnia.

4Cfoffins, it's sweet of you, but TN has in fact had more than its share of mainstream exposure, more than I am often comfortable with. Blogs work best as networks, not personal fiefdoms. And I'm not sure bloggers are "threatened"; I assure you I'm not. It's not a competition, really it's not. What do you win if it is?

But if I go on about why I wrote this piece, I'll just repeat what I've already said. The issue isn't really JS's blog, which sets out to be provocative, and has certainly provoked discussion. The issue is Stephen Crittenden's highly partial coverage of theatre blogging, which as Jana said, does no one any service, and perhaps least of all JS herself.

Paulo said...

"...we don't have good theatre here, we just have 'shows', and anything innovative is mostly dismissed..."

I'm going to have to pull you up on that one, 4 coffins.

And Jasbo, what are you talking about exactly when you refer to the "smug, self-referential theatrical community when it puts its own academic norms ahead of real engagement with an audience"

Theatre is an artform that is as diverse as the theatre community itself and, in my experience, i've hardly known that community to be smug. It's mostly made up of artists trying to make good work that engages an audience. And I rarely see 'academic norms' on a stage. I often see the creative manifestation of intellectual thought and indeed intelligent theatre. Should theatre practitioners apologise for that? I don't think so.

We live in an age where the theatre in this country has gone beyond mere entertainment and beyond analysing it in terms of good/bad... or in JS' terms of linear, realist Australian/shithouse, probably german.

Some 'challenging' theatre may seem smug to those few who expect to sit back in their comfy chairs and be told a harmless bedtime story, and JS is welcome to write on behalf of those people. But i do not think she should be endorsed as a serious alternative to theatre commentary that is actually analytical and effective in encouraging progress.

Richard Pettifer said...

yeah alright alright Paulo I'm being a bit cheeky there, of course we have good theatre sometimes. (I find your summation a bit idyllic though.)

Theatre, like other art, is occasionally inaccessible because the shared language you are using relies on the viewer being of a certain education level/cultural background/familiarity with theatre. This creates a circularity where theatre is only made behind closed doors of theatre wank. I think this was the argument Jasbo was making, and I reckon its valid sometimes, don't you?

However is Jane's approach an effective means of tackling this? Probably not hey.

Yeah fair enough Alison you don't need to seek the limelight but its a good thing you've created here and people should know about it, more worthy of coverage than SOYP. I know that's going to make "that's not why I wrote the article" alarm bells go off in your head but the comparison is interesting between two people who use the internet in different ways, you are a new age internet user but you maintain journalistic standards and ideals (failing sometimes etc) and that is a rarity even in mainstream media now, this is worth pointing out, and I think championing, the article on Jane's blog only highlights this.

Jana said...

Just a note: like any artform, theatre requires explanation, socialisation into it. I found a lot of contemporary performance difficult to understand when I was 15, but I was living in a context that sought to elucidate and debate it: artists' notes, reviews, TV shows, an entire education system. Just like, at first glance, cricket makes no sense.

The accuse of theatre communities being insular often stands - like any small community it has a specific vocabulary, history, points of reference. All good theatre writing must be intelligible to an outsider; it MUST open itself up to independent understanding, with a logically presented argument.

For example, one can refer to Brecht's theories of performance or Saussurian semiotics - because these are publicly available to consult. Anyone can look them up. But if one makes snide mentions of 'oh-so-cultured-Melbourne' and who slept with whom, nudge nudge wink wink - what is that if not insular, obfuscating commentary? What does that mean to an overseas reader? Where can they find their information?

As I write on my blog, JS's argumentation combines ad personam comments with personal anecdotes ('the production is shit because the director is a young wanker, so I started thinking about what to have for dinner 5 minutes in'). Where does one go from here? What sort of discussion can one continue to have?

I am sure JS has some theatrical knowledge - her review of Baal hints at it. But she does not open it up to an uninitiated reader in a coherent and logical fashion.

And, seriously, if my students wrote or said anything similar, I would try to socialise them into a more serious debating style, as a matter of course.

Alison Croggon said...

Jana, you sound just like a governess! And I am sure that Ms Simmons must be twice your age.

I have now talked myself into indifference: but I do think such flare-ups serve some purpose, in making people attend to why they do what they do. Which is not a bad thing, after all.

Alison Croggon said...

Oops - missed you there, 4Coffins. A life in poetry makes me believe that audiences ought to be measured by attentiveness, rather than by mass. A bit impractical, perhaps; but following your logic to its conclusion, work can only have merit if it's immediately legible to absolutely everybody. Which is clearly a nonsense. Luckily, as Jana points out above, languages can be learned and shared. And one man's wank is very often another woman's orgasmic aesthetic experience, as is demonstrated here quite often.

Born Dancin' said...

I wrote a long comment here a few days ago but it disappeared into the void (I don't think I signed in properly). Short version was: Simmons seems to subscribe to the awful notion of critic-as-teacher - someone to correct a work of art and its makers. Horrible critical standpoint and helpful to no one, imho.

But Paulo/4C/Jana make some interesting points here - 'theatre' is made up of insular communities. It's a group of languages as much as anything else, and if you don't speak one you realise it pretty quickly. How you react to that is crucial, I think. Do you try to work out what's being said, why a particular grammar has developed, who is doing the speaking? Or do you dismiss it out of hand because movies with subtitles are just such a pain (to stretch the analogy)?

Everyone here can probably name a creative sphere from which they're excluded, be it neo-classical music or dubstep, Noh theatre or panto. It's ok not to get a style of art. But to rubbish any of these because they don't meet your criteria for aesthetic worth is wilful self-impoverishment. I'd argue that it might occur as a way of regaining some power you feel has been denied through your 'exclusion,' and I suppose this kind of angry anti-criticism might have some merit given it's directed at some pretty established and well-funded companies, but if you're arguing experiment be replaced with When the Rain Stops Falling... seeya.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - you're the second person I know of who this has happened to. Apologies if anyone else has vanished into cyberspace. A fallback is to email me directly.

I suppose one of the points about the different languages of theatre, and of art in general, is how enjoyable and enriching it can be to learn them. And the other point is that it isn't compulsory. Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote a wonderful essay called A Modest Proposal, arguing for the teaching of poetry in German schools to be banned, so it can once again be a voluntary and joyous art...

Born Dancin' said...

(It was my fault the last comment didn't materialise - realised I have to sign in *after* posting and then repost, if I'm using a google account).

That reminds me of some stuff I was reading yesterday about the Anti-Math movement in the US early last century - people arguing that mathematics should be removed from high schools as 90% of students would never use most of it (eg algebra, calculus) ever again. It was only when the space race began that the anti-math proponents admitted that maths might be something worth following up on, actually.

Makes me think about how the turn away from teaching the arts in schools today is based around a similarly short-sighted utilitarian logic.

That said, I've learnt almost everything I know about the sciences since leaving school, so Enzensberger might have a point.

No, interest in any art isn't compulsory. Makes the reward sweeter, having to take that important step yourself.

TimT said...

Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote a wonderful essay called A Modest Proposal, arguing for the teaching of poetry in German schools to be banned, so it can once again be a voluntary and joyous art...

I agree with that completely. On the whole there are too many things taught in school anyway, and too few of them taught well.

Peter Prattle said...

Katharine Brisbane, doyenne of the Sydney theatre scene and someone who is certainly no flake left this comment on the Jane Simmons piece yesterday -

Great article, Stephen. Collates all the issues. I agree with every word of it. Like I said in my lecture, we left the audiences behind and at last they are turning on us.

It is so good to read quality writing on a social issue like this. It reveals so baldly the self-referential nature of our contemporary performing arts. The fact is that if you need your audience art has to be more than just for art's sake.

From Katharine Brisbane

In context of her lecture which you should all listen to, Simmons make sense.

I don't want to put words in her mouth, but frankly you're all out of touch.

Alison Croggon said...

"Out of touch" with who?

I have the greatest respect for Katharine Brisbane, but I disagreed with much of her lecture (which was considerably more nuanced and interesting than this article). It's also something she's proposed repeatedly; she said much the same thing about audiences and art back in 1999, way before the dreadful advent of Benedict Andrews.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: I posted a brief comment on Brisbane's lecture here, in which I suggested the major problem with the relationship between arts and audiences lay with the media's reporting: the Global Mail article being a prime example. As I said, "controversy-led, polarising, reductive and blandly conservative". It's something I have talked about here more than once. Many people wish that the arts were routinely given the same respect and attention to accuracy as, say, reporting on the cricket. Too often it's "meh, it's only art". Who cares if it's wrong, or misleading, or outright hostile?

Anonymous said...

I don't actually know why you are all so offended.

It seems to me you were all put off by the (exceptionally) bad and incorrect heading of the article. The piece itself is not really new and merely highlights a large number of peoples dismay at what they're seeing on the stages and reading in the newspaper.

The article clearly says there are a number of blogs out there, including this one, all 'writing in a wide diversity of styles'.

Not really a revelation.

The hysteria that's followed has been more startling and provoked you all to start philosophising about "Saussurian semiotics".

And now Simmons is being described by The Guardian as a 'troll'.

For goodness sake, a bit of perspective.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. Going back to the beginning, "perspective" was precisely what was being asked for. The rest is a lively discussion on what reviewing and/or theatre actually is or might be. "Hysteria"? Really?

Namechecking half a dozen bloggers (without links or any attempt at description) hardly counts as covering the diversity of blogging. Lazy reporting.

Anonymous said...

I must say, I generally read the reviews in the major publications and think wtf am I losing my mind, then check Shit on Your Play to make sure I'm sane and did in fact see...what I saw. Fabulous english.
Every now and then I read reviews, every now and troll the theatre blogs, generally to check up on friends in productions to make sure they're faring well, etc, but it is generally a baffling experience. I am still grasping the purpose of the critic, other than for the purposes of publicity for the company. I think people who read this blog and blog themselves are of 'the blogger/reviewer must invite conversation, socialise them into a more serious debating style', camp. But precisely what is loved about Shit on Your Play is it is not the kind of blog, they are not comparable. She tells you what happened to her and what appeared before her the minute the lights went down. Did it work for her, or didn't it. A blog like KJs will analyse every paragraph, every comma of the directors words in the program, he will give you all the social context of the world the play was written in comparatively to the world the production was mounted in now, and thats fabulous. I don't agree with his taste in theatre, but I love his knowledge. People are loving Shit on Your Play for that brilliant loud cackle it gives you to see someone write what you are thinking, that breaks the ice of stifled foyers where you can't say too much because everyone in this small arts community knows each other and needs each other, and a lot of reviewers and bloggers are part of the community, AND you want to be respectful, knowing what they have gone through, what they have put on the brink for you. It is such a relief that there is an anonymous blog where we can all purge in and say yep, that was farkin tripe. It is enjoyed because her thoughts are more aligned the the average theatre goer, more straight down the line, us cheap bastards who would never buy a program, than a critic. I think we are privileged to have both kind of reviews and blogs on offer to us in Sydney.

Alison Croggon said...

Everybody loves a bit of schadenfreude. And let's face it, if Shit on Your Play had been represented, not as the face of blogging, but as one of its faces, I seriously doubt that you'd have had this kind of fuss.

"Stifled foyers" - not my experience of Melbourne, where the discussion in foyers tends to the uninhibited.

Anonymous said...

I don't think she was presented as 'the face' of theatre blogging but we're getting very close to the reason you're pissed off.

Alison Croggon said...

But of course. The given arguments are just a cunning distraction. It's all really about envy, spite and frustrated ego.

Jana said...

Well, governess. I am often employed in order to teach younger people how to argue a point in a way that will give them, and their views, credibility in the wider professional world. It's very indicative (and troubling) that the Australian media's in-depth coverage of the arts focuses so often on the cases where the basic rules of civilised debate are abandoned.

Ditto 'hysteria' (again, you'd be out of my class for that one, anonymous, for getting personal, disrespectful, and insulting to your interlocutor). We are discussing a case because it brings up fundamental question of theatre and criticism, and our annoyance is exactly as valid as JS's uncontained outrage at what she perceives as bad theatre.

That, and the repeated insinuations that there is some element of envy (for not being written up in The Global Mail, my god) in Alison's motives illustrates points 35 and 38 of Schopenhauer's 38 Ways To Win and Argument very well.

Only one person so far has even tried to articulate why they think J.S. is a positive force. And, unfortunately, the one argument pro-JS is that she gives a voice to the impolite thoughts of 'this small arts community', which cannot be voiced in the 'stifled foyers' because someone's networking efforts might suffer. This is the very definition of the self-referential theatrical community muttering among themselves. No one so far has substantiated the claim that JS is more general-audience-friendly than Alison Croggon. Can you people please stand up and explain yourselves?

The claim to 'large numbers' of 'dismayed' is a moot point. No viewpoint can be validated simply by a large number of believers.

JS, to all accounts, writes unremarkable, ordinary things that one can hear whispered around the theatre world on any day. It seems that calling her a 'troll' personally offends people who whisper them, who would like those views held in higher regard. Unfortunately, once they are out in bright light, written down, those opinions do not look good. They don't stand up to scrutiny. Their arguments don't hold, and their manner is poor.

If any Anon wants to argue to the contrary, you really must lift your game.

hadenoughski said...

Alison, perhaps Jane has had-it-up-to-here. And letting loose, BECAUSE she is a teacher-in contrast to one of the previous posters, it requires utmost diplomacy and self-control if one is to be good at it-especially when teaching drama.
To wonder at, and publish her place of employment is not really on I don't think. If they take action, I'll be first on the phone to tell them they are idiots to let her go, if that's what happens.
I've enjoyed her blog immensely, not because of her sledging, but because it is honest and I think funny, and accessible to the average theatre-goer (although I do have a bunch of qualifications and even understand big words). I fear that the state of "play" is similar in Melbourne-though I am not a critic and paying for my tix makes it very limiting at the prices charged currently. I did not feel like she completely denigrate German literature, she was glib and reductionist about it-and it seemed more about what she thinks when it is borrowed and bastardised. I think of Network, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Could that not be the case? And it's not as scathing as some other stuff I've read overseas. I'd read her blog before all the drama (which is really no drama at all). I think it needed to be said and if it needs a sledgehammer, well then it does. I thought it was a breath of fresh air-and it is a blog-she's not the voice of a nation, she's the voice of herself. She does it for free and a bunch of journos have picked it up-who can possibly be surprised? Journos being sensationalist? Lordy no!
I wish I'd had a similar blog which was as brash as this one to assist me to save my dollars on some of the dross I've seen lately. And she does write positive stuff-when she sees it. And as for anonymity-it is a small small, gossip mongering paranoid do-you-ever-want-to-work-then-shut-the-hell-up town. Few are brave enough to even look at the Emperor,dressed as a entire nudie theatre zeitgeist-we are too busy wanting him to like us. But soon I won't care.

hadenoughski said...

Yeah there's typos-it's late.

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe I should just sort out some of the argument, because there are really two here. One complaint, the one I've been addressing, is that the article in the Global Mail, while claiming to talk about theatre blogging to an audience that for the most part will know little or nothing about it, chose to highlight a blog that does pretty much what the mainstream press has always claimed blogs do - make sniping, aggressive, personal attacks from a safe position of anonymity. Bloggers who spend a lot of time not doing this have got a bit sick of that mainstream portrayal over the years, and this probably explains some of the reaction.

The other is about the blog itself. Personally, I don't have a problem with Jane's blog being there, and nobody is trying to stop her writing it. I'm sure she serves the part of the audience that thinks as you do, and just as I would never say David Williamson's play should never be done, because there is certainly an audience for them, so I would say that an audience hostile to new theatre has every right to bitch about it. The world is big enough for everyone. I agree with the commenter above who said she didn't think the blog was brave, but that it was probably brave of her to reveal her identity. And of course such a blog is going to cause comment among bloggers, since theatre blogging consists of a community of very talkative people who are interested in dialogue and argument. And are pretty frank in their views.

What is irritating is the assumption that you represent ALL of "the audience". That's simply not true. I've been reading this while reading ecstatic tweets roll in about Simon Stone's latest Sydney show, Thyestes (which I saw when it opened in Melbourne, and think one of Hayloft's best. It was a sell-out here). Are you really saying that those people blown away by this show are not "audience"? Or that they are just lying or want to be liked?

I don't know why you claim that criticism about theatre is never negative, or even angry, and that in this way Jane is exceptional. That's just not the case either, and not even in mainstream print reviews.

And hey, no blogger gets paid for their trouble. We all do it for free.

Anonymous said...

You underestimate The Global Mail's readers I reckon. As clearly outlined in Crittenden's piece and one more time for the dummies:
Maybe so, but low expectations are hardly what is inspiring the growing army of theatre bloggers in Australia. Writing in a wide diversity of styles, bloggers such as Alison Croggon, Diana Simmonds, Kevin Jackson, Augusta Supple, James Waites, Jana Perkovic, Bob Ellis and Jane Simmons are giving the mainstream newspaper reviewers a run for their money; indeed, they seem already to have overtaken the old guard in terms of their impact on udiences.

We've already established you're offended to be put in the same paragraph as Simmons but the article clearly states for their non Daily Tele readers that you blog people have a range of styles. Simmons is not presented as the face, the model, the icon of your free enterprise. It's an example. God forbid.

Peter Prattle said...

"I've resisted pointing out that Shit on Your Play had, up to the publication of the Global Mail article ... gained as many hits - or maybe pageloads - in its entire life as TN averages in a month."

Sadly, your post-script points even more into the jealousy theory. If only the story had profiled you. But it didn't. It's a story about Jane Simmons, a blogger in Sydney.

You could have been at least a little bit fairer and compared her blog hit rate to the first six months of TN's existence.

But then again, we aren't talking about you, are we?

Kim said...

No, Peter, we're talking about why a blogger with a small following and virtually unknown within the blogging community was given so much attention in a feature article about theatre blogging. I'd ask you to answer that question but I think Jana did that perfectly well on her blog.

Anonymous said...

No Kim. It was an article about a theatre blogger.

Alison Croggon said...

Now we're in a doomed spiral of repetition. You'll forgive me if I bow out now; I'm bored, but you are perfectly welcome to talk among yourselves, within the bounds of libel, of course. Maybe read the post right at the top of this long column again, Anon: it explains all my reasons perfectly clearly. If it's a comfort to think I am jealous, you are free to do so.

sourmug said...

personally i try to limit my exposure to excrement.

Jana said...

Ooh, did I cross the line in my last, desaparecided comment? I wish you made some note when you edit, Alison - I never know if I should moderate my language or spell the CAPTCHA better... :)

Alison Croggon said...

Sorry Jana - I hadn't noticed you were lurking in the spam. Up there now.

Jana said...

Shock, horror, punctuation. Spam!

Jana said...

Somehow that hurts more than having comments deleted :D

Anyway, I've been thinking about the culture of the arts pages in other countries I know to some degree (such as Italy), and whether they would present a particularly low-quality kind of blogger as a curiosity (I stand by this assessment). And you know what occurred to me? No. But they would, as a curiosity, present something like Neandellus (in his glory, radical days). That's an interesting blogger, with a limited but devoted audience, doing something brave and solitary and altogether unusual.

The point I'm making is not about which country is better - just that things don't have to be the way we are used to them being.

Alison Croggon said...

I wouldn't take offence at blogger. It sometimes makes no sense at all.

I wish Neandellus were blogging as often as he used to. One of the best. That link doesn't work, btw: here's a live one.

Rawcus said...

Isn't Neandellus Cameron Woodhead's good twin?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Of course he isn't! Peter Craven only has one love-child.

(I know I resolved not to post comments here in 2012 ... but when you calls spirits from the vasty deep, they do occasionally come.)

My contribution to the discussion is in today's paper, online at The Age website:


and will appear on my blog in due course. Don't tell me the MSM never says anything nice about you, O theatrical blogosphere...

Alison Croggon said...

Hey, Cameron, we missed you. And thanks: excellent piece. I'm so glad there's a sensible analysis in the broadsheets to right the record. Here's a live link.

Rawcus said...

I forgot to add the smiley face to my last comment Cameron, no offence intended.